Guest Poster: Adam Toporek
It is my pleasure to introduce Adam Toporek of Intense Fence Management Solutions as my first Guest Poster! Adam has just launched a new series on his site entitled Customer Service Stories. Once you’ve had a chance to read Adam’s post here, I encourage you to go check him out at his website and blog. Enjoy!
When to Let Go of Your Goals
Mountain climbing is often overdone as a metaphor. As an analogy for business or life, mountaineering usually results in predictable platitudes: know your route, check your equipment, have a backup plan, and so on.
Those who talk of mountains speak of grand accomplishments and majestic summits. And of course they do. Success sells; failure does not. But the most important lesson in mountaineering is the one that is rarely mentioned:
You need to know when to head down the mountain; you need to know when to let go of your goal.
The Unspoken Law of The Mountains
I have been attracted to the mountaineering genre since John Krakauer’s seminal 1998 book, Into Thin Air. Many are familiar with Krakauer’s story of the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, a terrible meeting of bad circumstances and poor decisions that resulted in the death of eight climbers. My most recent read was No Way Down by Graham Bowley, the tale of the 2008 tragedy on K2. Like Into Thin Air, Bowley’s story demonstrates the perils of failing to let go of goals when climbing at high altitude.
The summits of the great Himalayan peaks are well within the “death zone” (usually considered above 26,000 feet) where the air is so thin and oxygen so depleted that the human body begins to break down. If the altitude does not take you out quickly through pulmonary or cerebral edema, it attacks you progressively with a host of symptoms from impaired vision to lack of coordination to hallucinations. Not things to look forward to when you are climbing down a steep ice face. Climbing in the death zone is many things, but most of all it is a race against the clock.
Acknowledgement of the dangers at high altitude often results in a fairly standard strategy for commercially guided groups in the Himalayan peaks. After laying siege to the mountain at progressively higher camps, the plan is usually to wake up very early in the morning to summit. Often there is a limited window for summiting due to season and weather, and there are teams from all over the world attempting to summit in this limited time frame, creating dangerous bottlenecks.
And there is where the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Most teams have a designated turnaround time. If you are not at the summit by X o’clock, you turn around; otherwise, you expose yourself to a whole new series of risks, of being caught high on the mountain, far from supplies and shelter, and often beyond rescue. Turnaround times are supposed to be inviolable.
Unfortunately, goals can be difficult to walk away from.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
Why do people fail to turnaround at the appropriate time when the consequence can be an increased likelihood of death? While each individual has their own unique motivations, a common strand amongst some of the climbers in these tragedies seems to be that they feel they’ve come too far, trained too hard, and given up too much to turn back.
Imagine spending tens of thousands of dollars, training for months, hiking and climbing for weeks, dealing with permits and red tape to enter China or Pakistan, and to be told only an hour from the summit that it is time to turnaround. It’s only another hour! I’ve made it this far; I can’t turnaround now.
But mountaineering is not the only area in which this phenomenon occurs. People fail to let go of goals in other areas of life because they have simply “come too far.”
In economics, this phenomenon is known as the sunk cost fallacy. It is the proposition that previous actions have a bearing on a present decision when they are in fact irrelevant. For instance, holding on to a stock that you should sell because you have invested so much in it. Keeping a failing business open because of the blood and treasure you have spent on it. A sunk cost can be financial, or it can be another resource like time. What all sunk costs have in common is that they are already expended. No matter what decision you make, those “costs” are gone.
The sunk cost fallacy is at the heart of many bad decisions, from mountaineering to relationships to business. Studies have proven that we are loss averse. We value something we already have much more than something of the same value that we might acquire. In other words, the more we invest in something, the more difficult it is to let go. Unfortunately, letting go is sometimes the right choice.
When Is It Time to Let Go of a Goal
Of course, goals are as varied as the people who create them, and when to walk away from goals is even more complicated. For business goals, perhaps it is when the risk is no longer justified by the potential rewards. For personal goals, perhaps it is when the goal is no longer inspiring.
In a more general sense, however, the time to give up on any goal is when you realize that if you were starting fresh at that moment, you would not choose to pursue that goal. A future goal should not be based on what you previously invested in it; it should be based on whether it is still wise to pursue now.
Let’s face it. No one likes to quit, to give up, to let go. But sometimes circumstances change, and the wisdom of pursuing past goals does as well. So, the next time you see a famous mountaineer waxing poetic about climbing as a metaphor for life, realize that they will probably not mention the most important lesson of the mountains: know when to let go of your goals – if you do, you just might live to achieve some other ones.
Author’s Note: To any real mountaineers (I am not one), please know that I recognize that turnaround times and the reasons for both tragedies are topics far more nuanced and complex than they have been reduced to in their singularly metaphorical capacity here.
Adam Toporek is a Central Florida franchise developer and small business owner who blogs about the customer service experience. He has logged multiple ascents of Everest, a rollercoaster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the highest “mountain” in the state of Florida.